The broadcasters have achieved their HD dream as Facebook Live makes it a nonsense, writes Alan Burkitt-gray
Facebook Live throws HD out of focus
Two continents are colliding. When this happens on a geological scale, you get exciting mountain ranges such as the Alps or the Himalayas. When it happens in the telecoms and media world, the result is a cloud of misunderstanding and confusion.
The colliding continents in this case are the old-school content providers – we used to call them broadcasters, if you remember the term – and, on the other side of the narrowing sea, the new world of instant video: Facebook Live, Youtube, Vimeo and so on.
The result may be a mountain range but – let’s continue this geological metaphor for just another few words – it is more likely that one continent will be subducted under another. But which?
Let’s go back to plain English. The issues emerged in discussions at the Capacity North America conference in Toronto at the beginning of October. Three panel discussions and one presentation on the first morning showed clearly that the two continents – sorry, just this once more – are populated by people with completely different experiences of the world, different understandings and different ideas about the future.
There are the people whose roots come from the traditional world of broadcasting, including the cable and satellite channels. For years they have been dreaming of a world of high definition (HD) pictures better, clearer and brighter.
The trouble was, television grew up in an analogue world when there was limited transmission capacity available. Each black-and-white channel had to be fitted within a few megahertz, and when colour was added in the 1960s that had to be done without redesigning the spectrum. Flickering pictures were displayed on bulky cathode-ray tubes that took up a whole corner of the living room.
Fifty years of analogue
For 50 years that was that: from the coronation of Britain’s Queen in 1953 to the Apollo moon landings to the fall of the Berlin wall and the horrors of 9/11, people watched in analogue, low-resolution television.
It is hard to realise that flat-screen, large-screen, wide-screen, high-definition TV is so recent. It is a product of the digital age, with compression technology that allows cable and satellite networks and even terrestrial broadcast systems to carry dozens or hundreds of digital channels.
The broadcasters have finally achieved their dream. They are happy that we are living in that science-fiction world with TV sets hanging on the wall, delivering vivid pictures with stereo sound.
Now they – the broadcasters and the set manufacturers – are dreaming of the next upgrade, and the one after that, and even the one after that. Many broadcasters are already recording material in 4K, the first standard to be called ultra-high definition (UHD). That has pictures 3,840 pixels wide and 2,160 pixels high, four times as many as today’s HD. They want to follow that with 8K UHD, four times as many again, 7680 × 4320 pixels.
It doesn’t stop. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, the industry’s UHD Alliance announced what they called Ultra HD Premium – essentially UHD with better colour depth and improved dynamic range.
In a few years TV screen resolution is going from less than half a megapixel with standard definition – just a few years ago – to over 32 megapixels with 8K HD, a 75-fold increase. Even with better compression, that is going to put some strain on the content delivery networks that move programmes across the world.
However, is this what the viewer wants? Not according to market research company IHS Markit, which has been monitoring a steady global decline in sales of TV sets. “Total annual TV shipments fell to 226 million units in 2015, a 4% year-over-year decline,” the company reported in March.
Why? Some of the panellists at Capacity North America showed that they understand just how the market is changing. People are consuming media in different ways and they have different expectations.
Take Micah Gelman, director of video and a senior editor at the Washington Post. That is a newspaper, of course, though he said at the conference that “the Washington
A year ago I was on panels talking about the death of live. Facebook changed all that” Micah Gelman, director of video, Washington Post
Post and all other publishers are working in a post-text world”.
Many of these newspaper-run TV news services began by aping the existing commercial news channels. News on the hour, every hour, with headlines on the half hour.
But that’s not how people consume news these days. If you’re at a desk with an internet connection all day, or have a smartphone, you can keep up with the news, sports, finance and gossip all day. You don’t gather round the family TV screen at a set hour to watch a carefully crafted 30 minutes less time for ads and the weather.
Instead, you keep an eye on your favourite sites. And, perhaps most importantly – depending on your age – you also keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and the other social media sites.
The Washington Post killed Washington Post Live, its TV news streaming service. “A year ago I was on panels talking about the death of live,” said Gelman. “Facebook changed all that.” Now the Post uses Facebook Live, the video add-on that Facebook started earlier in 2016.
It’s still early days, but Facebook Live has won over another broadcaster that uses it exclusively for its sports TV service. Glenn Harvey is chairman and CEO of Pro Players Network, which covers American football and basketball and in earlier days would have been called a sports channel.
Quality is not the decider
Pro Players Network does not use cable or satellite, still less terrestrial TV. It reaches its enthusiastic followers exclusively via Facebook Live. “We deliver long-form video over Facebook,” said Harvey at the summit. “Facebook Live is our domain.”
He took the decision after looking at the popularity of the world’s biggest websites. “Fox was at 1,100 in the world, Netflix at 34,” he said, without citing the source of his data. “Google was number one and Facebook number two.”
There’s a limitation with Facebook. “We can only broadcast in 720 [pixels wide] now, but we are having discussions with Facebook about quality and watermarks. However, the quality issue is not as prevalent in young consumers.”
They want to watch on their smartphones, he said. They are not interested in sitting down in the family living room and watching an HD screen on the wall. The result? “My cost of programming is a fraction of others’ but my audience equals theirs.”
And there are consequences for the carrier industry, too, he suggested. “Facebook will be the second largest carrier on the planet,” said Harvey.
So here we have it. On the one continent, the traditional industry is still on the sofa; on the other, millennials are watching sport on their phones.
If you’re confused, spare a little sympathy – possibly – for the US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The law under which it operates takes little account of broadband and none of OTT, Alexi Maltas, a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, at the event.
The FCC thinks of OTT as the competition. What does it think of TV on smartphones? It’s more interested in worrying about whether it is cable or internet protocol, said Maltas.
Meanwhile the continents are grinding together. But don’t expect an Everest or Mont Blanc.